Born in Bombay at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947—the exact moment of India’s independence from British rule—narrator Saleem Sinai is writing the story of his life. Saleem’s historical birthday means that he is inescapably linked to his country, and after being “heavily embroiled in Fate” for thirty years, Saleem is now dying. Fearing absurdity, he claims he must work faster than Scheherazade if he is to mean something.
Saleem’s desire to tell his story is reflected in his reference to Scheherazade, a female character in the Middle Eastern folktale, One Thousand and One Nights. As the story goes, after the King’s wife is unfaithful, he beheads her, and proceeds to take a new wife each day only to behead her as well. When the King marries Scheherazade, she saves her life through storytelling. Each night, she begins a new story, withholding the ending until the next night—ensuring a stay of execution. Scheherazade runs out of stories by the end of one thousand and one nights, by which time the King has fallen in love with her and spares her life. As the personification of India, Saleem is hoping his own life—and by extension, India—will be saved through his storytelling.
Saleem is full of the stories of his ancestors and has too many to tell, but he begins with the story of a blood-stained bedsheet with a single circular hole cut in it—his “talisman”—which represents the beginning of his life, “some thirty-two years before …” Saleem notes that the sheet is stained with precisely three drops of blood, reminding the reader that according to the Quran, man was created from drops of clotted blood.
Saleem’s life and culture are rooted in stories, and the story of the bedsheet is the most important one—it is the beginning of his life, some thirty years before his birth, suggesting that the span one’s life exceeds actual years lived. Saleem’s mention of the Quran reinforces the cultural significance of religion on his identity, despite not actively believing in God.
Saleem’s story flashes back to Kashmir, 1915. His grandfather, Aadam Aziz, kneels to pray, and after striking his nose on the ground, three drops of blood fall onto his prayer-mat. The cold air transforms Aadam’s blood into rubies and his tears into diamonds, and he vows never again to bow to any god or man. He rolls up his mat and looks out at his Kashmiri homeland.
Aadam’s renunciation of his religion mirrors the secular nature of the independent India of the future. The three drops of blood which fall from his nose represent the partition of British India into the three separate counties of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh after independence. Rubies, the most precious of gems according to the Indian people, are believed to enable their owners to live in peace amongst enemies—Saleem’s hope for his country.
Saleem notes that during his grandfather’s time, Kashmir had hardly changed since the Mughal Empire—there is no military presence and few Englishmen. As Aadam looks around the Kashmiri valley, his nose begins to itch.
Saleem’s caveat is a direct reference to the effects of British colonialism. The beautiful land that was untouched for hundreds of years has been ruined by a foreign power, and Aadam’s nose, which often serves as a harbinger of danger, foretells future trouble.
Aadam is twenty-five and has been away at a German medical school for five years. Now, he feels caged-in by the traditional Old World ways of his country and senses the resentment of others because of his Western education. This early Kashmir is a “Paradise”; yet to Aadam’s “travelled eyes,” it feels narrow and sad.
Aadam’s European education has Westernized him. Western ideals dictate that Old India is viewed as uncivilized and antiquated, and Aadam now shares these sentiments, which makes him incapable of appreciating Kashmir’s beauty.
Aadam reflects on college and his friends, Ingrid, Oskar, and Ilse, German anarchists who mock his religion and believe India was “discovered” by Europeans. His European friends credit their own ancestors with Aadam’s creation, and knowing this, it is difficult for him to return home and pray. Aadam is stuck between believing and disbelieving his religion and God, and as he abandons his religion, he is permanently altered in the form of a hole in his soul.
Aadam’s college friends reflect colonial ideals of European superiority. To his friends, India only began to exist when it became British India—before that it was nothing. Aadam’s country and culture are not respected by his classmates, and since both his country and identity are so deeply rooted in religion, he has difficulty praying. The hole in his soul made by this admission reflects the level of importance of religion in Indian culture and identity.
Upon his return to Kashmir, Aadam finds his father housebound after a stroke and his mother, having exited purdah, running the family’s gemstone business. Now, his father sits at home in a fog, making bird-noises and calling in over thirty different species of birds. Saleem gives a physical description of Aadam, who notably has a large bulbous nose, which “established incontrovertibly his right to be a patriarch.”
In many ways, Rushdie’s novel empowers women, and Aadam’s mother is a prime example. She upends gender expectations by doing her husband’s work when he is unable. However, despite this representation of a powerful woman, Aadam’s nose—a phallic symbol—reflects the ultimate power of the patriarchy.
As Aadam rolls up his prayer-mat, he sees Tai, the old boatman, approaching on his ferry from across Dal Lake. Aadam is fond of Tai and the endless stories he has gathered taxying people and goods across Dal and Nageen Lakes. Tai is extremely old (no one knows just how old) and has many stories.
The character of Tai underscores the importance of storytelling in Indian society. As a ferryman, he comes into contact with countless others through his stories. Tai is viewed as ancient like his stories because stories never die—they live on through those who retell them.
Aadam daydreams, recalling his childhood when he once asked Tai how old he really was. Tai had replied that he is old enough to “have watched the mountains being born” and to “have seen the Emperors die.” Aadam remembers Tai telling him unbelievable stories, including one about meeting Christ when he visited Kashmir once long ago. As a child, Tai’s stories taught Aadam the secrets of the lake, including where to swim, how to avoid snakes, and where the English women go to drown. Tai also taught Aadam about noses, “the place where the outside world meets the inside you,” instructing him to always trust his nose and heed its warnings.
Again, Aadam’s interaction with Tai highlights the importance of storytelling as a means to preserve history. Tai, who is the embodiment of stories, is as old as his oldest tale—dating back to the beginning of time. Aadam’s mention of the lake’s secrets and drowning English women foreshadow Ilse’s upcoming suicide, and Tai’s attempts to teach Aadam about the powers of his nose explain and foretell the symbolic significance of noses within Saleem’s story.
Aadam is roused from his daydream as Tai approaches shore. Tai tells Aadam that the daughter of Mr. Ghani, a local landowner, is sick and in need of a doctor. Aadam quickly runs to fetch his medical bag, happy to see a new patient and begin establishing his medical practice.
Aadam hopes to start a modern medical practice, one that does not rely solely on Old Indian concepts of medicine, which he views as mere quackery. This eagerness reflects Aadam’s Western education and views.
Aadam arrives at home, where his mother complains of a headache and rash. Embarrassed about removing her purdah and working with the public in the family’s gemstone business, Aadam’s mother has broken out in boils. Aadam quickly examines her and suggests that she put her purdah back on; she refuses, claiming nobody would buy gemstones from a woman hiding behind a black hood. She states, “So they must look at me; and I must get pains and boils.”
To Aadam’s mother, being seen by strange men in public without her veil causes her deep shame that manifests as physical boils; however, she is committed to saving her business and becoming a modern Indian woman. The exit of purdah represents a step towards gender equality, and Aadam’s mother endures her pain and boils as an expense of her freedom.
Breaking away from his mother, Aadam returns to Tai’s boat to be ferried to his new patient. Tai appears upset, and calling Aadam a “big shot,” he notices his new leather bag “full of foreigners’ tricks.” Tai ignores Aadam’s attempts to make small talk and is obviously angry. To Tai, Aadam’s new bag represents progress and the West, and he asks Aadam if he has “one of those machines that foreign doctors use to smell with.” Aadam realizes that Tai is speaking of a stethoscope, and when he says yes, Tai responds, “I knew it. You will use such a machine now, instead of your own nose.”
Tai represents Old India and he resents Aadam’s Western education and ideas. Tai’s India is vulnerable to European powers through colonialism, and since his return from Germany, Tai views Aadam as just another European who will undoubtedly change and influence his Indian way of life to align with European culture and ideas. This passage also underscores the symbolic importance of noses and their ability to divine trouble, which Aadam disregards in favor of his Western stethoscope.
When Aadam arrives to examine his new patient, Naseem, Mr. Ghani tells him that his daughter’s usual doctor, a woman, is sick. Aadam realizes that Mr. Ghani, a widower, is blind and this makes him increasingly uncomfortable. Aadam’s nose begins to itch, and he considers running away, but a large, muscular woman appears and leads him into a bedchamber where two additional (and equally muscular) women are holding up a large bedsheet like a curtain. Aadam notes a small hole, about seven inches in diameter, in the center of the sheet.
Aadam’s irritated nose is a warning he ignores—just as Tai predicts. Ghani is interested in finding a suitable husband for his daughter, not a suitable doctor, and Aadam and Naseem’s future marriage will be a source of pain for both of them. Presumably, Naseem is not involved in selecting her own suitor; rather, Aadam is selected and summoned by her father, reflecting Naseem’s powerlessness to make her own decisions.
Mr. Ghani states that the women are his daughter’s protectors and orders Aadam to examine Naseem through the hole—from the other side of the sheet. Ghani claims that Naseem is a “decent girl” and that strange men are not permitted to see her. At first confused, Aadam agrees and examines Naseem’s upset stomach through the perforated sheet.
Naseem’s usual doctor is a woman because she is not allowed to be viewed by strange men, hence the large bedsheet, or purdah. The purdah symbolically represents the confines of India’s patriarchal society, and the power of Naseem’s female “protectors” is reflected in the women’s masculine description.